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On Jan. 20, 10 members of Branford High School Model Congress (BHSMC) brought home four winning gavels from Harvard Model Congress in San Francisco.
This year, BHSMC, an extracurricular "club," is topped out with nearly 150 members. All have the chance to travel to Ivy League settings and compete in Model Congress programs overwhelmingly populated by private school teams. The hours, days, weeks, and months of dedication it takes to get to that point all add up to what BHSMC "founding father" James Petela calls "The Model Congress Experience."
Now in its 19th year, BHSMC is largely led by its student presidents, said Petela, a BHS AP history teacher. The 2013 BHSMC presidents are Vinny Roca, Stephen Perrotti, Chase Fowler, Edgar Ortiz, Pompeo Mazzella, Dan Lomartra, Robby Hacker, Abby Raynor, Megan Wirtz, Chrissy Beaulac, Calla Cameron, and Laura Peterson.
"This is an amazing group," said Petela. "They're competitive, competent, and cohesive-excellent leaders."
They carry on a legacy of excellence established by past leaders who've mentored them, said many of the 2013 presidents.
"We have them as our mentors," said Beaulac. "So even though we're kind of in their shadow, it's a good opportunity to be able to learn from them and now we try to take that and teach it to the incoming kids."
Alumni also often guide BHSMC members at MC events at their colleges, including past BHSMC presidents Nicole Hobbs ('10), now a principal in Yale's program; and Delaram Takyar ('11) a leading member of the Harvard program. Even these standouts had to start where most BHSMC members begin, though: as inexperienced freshmen.
"We all experienced it ourselves," said Beaulac. "It's terrifying. Your first practice, you don't know what Model Congress is, essentially. We spend the first couple of meetings teaching them what it is, and what they're going to be doing, and then the brave ones sign up for a conference, which comes up pretty quickly. It's nice to see the kids who the first day literally won't even open their mouth because they're so scared?by the fifth or sixth practice they're standing up and giving a speech against juniors and seniors."
Wirtz added, "My freshman year, I was so intimidated because I was thinking they were all geniuses! But it's really about whether you can out-argue something."
Needless to say, BHSMC appeals to motivated students with an interest in stretching their intellect and the desire to compete with top-level students.
"We are very competitive," said Cameron, one of four gavel winners in San Francisco (with Ortiz, Roca, and BHSMC member Haley Brown). Cameron added, "There are so many kids there who are just brilliant. I think it's nice to be around really, really smart kids."
BHSMC often competes with schools where Model Congress is curriculum-based. BHSMC members go above and beyond to prepare.
"When you prepare as much as we do, it makes us equal," said Raynor. "Our practice helps kids know what to expect."
For Roca, sharing what he's learned with younger students has also shown him how much he's learned; from developing ideas to pulling statistics.
During practice sessions, "when you see how little they know at first, you realize how much you've learned. It's really amazing," Roca said.
Fowler said the thing he enjoys most about being a BHSMC president is helping students write bills.
"There are those kids that you can really help write their bills, by starting them off," said Fowler. "A lot of freshman and sophomores, they have to find inspiration in the other folks, so you really have to coach them along in the format and everything. By the time they get it, they've really developed their bill and they're really dedicated to it and invested in it-and you've helped them along."
Students often delve into topics they'd likely never otherwise encounter, from hydrofracking to Super PACs.
"It makes you more aware of what's going on in the world," said Cameron.
BHSMC members also learn to prepare for trials as an attorney; a favorite for Ortiz, who wants to pursue a career in corporate law. He's enjoying passing along his knowledge of District Court.
"You have teams of six so you have three lawyers and three witnesses, and you have actual cases," said Ortiz. "That's always been my favorite."
Moot Court challenges, or "presenting a case and arguing it," as Cameron explains, are another BHSMC opportunity.
Possibly more remarkable than the BHSMC experience itself is the fact the program's entirely self-funded. Student travel costs average $600 per student per East Coast event. To fuel BHSMC, Petela shepherds donations and contributions and motivates students to pitch in with fundraising efforts to build a scholarship program. In 2012, nearly 50 students received more than $10,000 in BHSMC scholarship money.
The idea's to offer "every student who is sincerely interested and qualified an affordable opportunity to attend at least one of the major conference," explained Petela.
In the past 19 years, more than 2,200 students have participated in BHSMC, winning more than 322 awards by attending more than 100 conferences and related events (including major conferences at Yale, Princeton, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Princeton Moot Court).
Noting BHSMC students learn about America's system of government in-depth, while also experiencing the culture of top-notch colleges and developing personal skills, socials skills, confidence, and other abilities, Petela said, "The Model Congress experience offers our students learning opportunities, on many levels."
BHSMC asks the public to save the date: Monday, May 13, to attend the annual Yale Whiffenpoof/BHS Music Makers Fundraising Concert to benefit BHSMC, at Branford High School (food court opens 5:30 p.m., concert begins 7 p.m.). For ticket information or more information on BHSMC, visit